Copyright 2003, Kathryn Carissimi
We were out of milk, so I stupidly dumped a pint of half-and-half in a glass and drank the whole thing in one disgusted gulp. Breakfast of champions, right?
"Mike, you ready?" my brother Chris called, rushing out of our room in his favorite work shirt and khaki pants. "I overslept again. Why didn't our alarm go off?"
"I didn't hear it."
"I called you three times."
"Call louder," he sighed, throwing open one of the white cabinet doors above our heads and searching for a coffee mug.
"Is Steve sleeping?" I asked, rinsing out the half and half glass and filling it with warm water.
"Yeah, he got in around six." That meant six a.m. My oldest brother was working the night shift this week. I glanced toward the closed door across from our own, where Steve was undoubtedly passed out with his suit on the floor.
"Hey," Chris called, reaching toward the back of the cabinet. "Do you know why there are no clean mugs?"
"Because we're out of dish soap. But I don't know if we unpacked the mugs yet."
My brother rolled his eyes. "I hate not being able to find things."
We were still unpacking from our recent move. After a two week stay in the hospital, I had been relieved to relocate with Steve to the two-bedroom apartment he'd found for the two of us now that he was my legal guardian. Chris had shown up two days after my release with a suitcase and his backpack and announced that he'd dropped out of American University and gotten a job to help us. I hadn't believed him, not until later that night when I heard my brothers arguing: and Chris crying.
"I didn't know what to do," he had confessed to Steve. "We have to help Mike, and to do that we need money, and we can't get money while I'm trying to pay for college."
"But Chris, you could have done work study, or something…"
"Dad was paying! And now…everything's wrong…" he had faltered. "We're at a dead end, Steve. You have bills to pay and Mike to take care of, and I can't worry about going to school with everything that's happened and everything that's going to happen. I can go back…one day, when we're ahead, I can finish, but now…" his voice broke.
"Chris, come on, don't cry, things'll work out, we're through the worst of it, Chris don't…" Steve had pleaded. But the stress of finding me on Christmas, brining me to Washington, fighting my father, finding me unconscious and half-dead right before winning custody, the hospital, the money, and quitting school had caught up with my older brother.
I had listened from my room, surrounded by boxes, rubbing my bruises, shivering: and the voice had started.
Anywhere you go…My father. Anywhere you go, you cause suffering…
You are responsible, Michael…
No, Daddy.All you do is cause suffering…
"Damn it!" my brother's voice reminded me of where I was. "Where are the Goddamn…there!" my brother fished out an old Happy Mother's Day mug and started to lower it to the counter below, than caught me eyeing it and abruptly shoved it back. A second later his hand emerged clutching a Garfield cup instead.
"I turned the coffee pot on," I muttered, stepping around him and out into the living room to pack up the books I had strewn over our table.
"Thanks. Did you finish your homework?"
"I fell asleep."
"The school called Steve the other night."
My heart leapt. "Yeah?"
"You're failing almost everything."
A warm burning started in my stomach as I grew nervous. My hands shook as I slid the books into my black backpack and zipped it up. I couldn't concentrate on schoolwork anymore. Everything the teachers said seemed dumb or hard; I usually lost myself watching my classmates laughing and talking and enjoying their last year in junior high while I sat there wishing that—
You were whole?
"The state will look at that when they check up on us," Chris said softly. I kept my eyes lowered, hurt that he'd use that against me.
"Steve and I will help you with anything you need. You know that, right?"
I shoved my books in my backpack without answering. My brother sighed and began moving around the kitchen again, grabbing change for the vending machine and something to eat while driving to work. "Hey, who finished the half-and-half?" he suddenly called.
"I'll buy more," I answered, searching for my jean jacket. It was cold for spring; it reminded me of autumn.
It felt like this last fall, right before Christmas.
"There was almost a full pint left," my brother persisted.
"I drank it."
"You drank it?"
"I wasn't paying attention."
Chris came around the corner that separated the kitchen from the living room, coffee in hand. I pretended to be busy buttoning my coat.
I shrugged. "Tired."
"I didn't hear you last night. Did you sleep alright?"
I swallowed and looked out the window overlooking the parking lot. My stomach had been giving me hell lately—
Picking up where Daddy left off?
—and I hadn't been sleeping well because of it. Not that I minded; when I did sleep, I usually had nightmares, which is why I hated sharing a room with my brother. If I woke up, he woke up, and then I had to try to convince him that I was fine while I shook and tried not to cry and forced the fear down.
"I was okay," I said softly, putting the last of my books in my bag.
Chris glanced at his watch and drained his coffee.
"You ready? We've gotta go if I'm gonna get to work on time."
The thought of going to school made my stomach lurch violently. I didn't want to have to hear the rumors or fail the tests or watch the kids. I drew a sharp breath and steadied myself, forcing my breathing to be normal. My stomach began to burn, and I rubbed it unconsciously. The pain was back with a vengeance. Milk had usually helped; I had hoped half-and-half would work wonders.
"Steve's...what's wrong?" my brother frowned.
My stomach jumped again as he watched me. I tried hard to look normal and stand straight. "I'm just tired," I tried to reassure him.
Chris didn't look convinced. "You're so pale."
"If you're feeling sick, you can stay home. Steve's gonna be here today. He's on graveyard shift again tonight."
My oldest brother Steve was a deputy officer for the Washington DC Police Department. It wasn't a job that Chris or I liked him doing; anytime a story came on the news about a cop getting killed, Chris and I would get tense and quiet and look imploringly at Steve, who'd just shake his head and go back to whatever he was doing; usually, playing around with our budget.
"Anyway," Chris went on when I didn't answer, "Steve's gonna do the grocery shopping and laundry today, so we're off the hook for chores."
I didn't answer. Steve always did my chores for me anyway. He never told me why he did, just not to worry about them.
"Will you be home normal time?"
"Yeah," I mumbled. By the end of the school day I felt ready to explode if I didn't get away from the bad grades and the ditzy laughter and the silence other students gave me. And the Godamned rumors.
Mike Cullen's failing. He's not gonna pass ninth grade. He's got depression. He's got anorexia. His father used to—
There were a hundred ways to fill in the blank.
Steve bugged me every once and awhile about not having any extra-curricular activities, but he had so many other things—work, money, chores—that getting on my case because I refused to play basketball or join debate seemed petty. He picked his battles.
I preferred to come home and try to make up for some of the sleep I'd miss during the night, because it didn't matter if I dreamed when I was alone. Besides, sleeping was the one escape I had, the one time I didn't have to deal with anything for awhile. The day, the apartment, the pain—
All part of healing
"Oh, remind me to tell Steve Uncle Ron called."
He was my mother's favorite brother and our least favorite Uncle; he was too stern, too serious, too strict. But I remembered seeing him at the funeral: I'd never seen a grown man cry the way he had that day. That was my last memory of him. He had vanished during my stay in Philadelphia, Christmas, the custody battle, and our move. What did he want now?
"Did he say what about?"
"Nope. Just to have Steve call him."
"You should write him a note. Or we'll probably forget."
Chris nodded and went scrambling through our disorganized drawers for a notepad. I finished packing my bag and hovered nervously while he scrawled a note to Steve.
"Let's go," my brother called, draining his mug and scooping his car keys off a metal hook by the door. At least twice a week they wouldn't be there, and then the two of us would rush around for five minutes trying to find them until Chris would remember that they were in his other pants or he had lent them to Steve or he had dropped them behind the couch or something else ridiculously absentminded.
I followed my brother out the door and down the two flights of stairs to the parking lot outside. Our apartments were set in a square, the front doors opening to the parking lot, the back ones opening to a square courtyard with a small grassy hill in the center. The landlords had added benches and fancy looking lampposts around the courtyard, but all there was to look at for the longest time was the plain grass, until someone complained about how ugly it was and the landlord planted a miniature pine right in the center of it. That really spruced things up.
"I'm parked on the other side. Steve's got the spot for the week," Chris told me, waiting for me to catch up to him. Each apartment had one parking space with the apartment number painted on the blacktop. If you followed the winding driveway right, you'd reach the road to town. If you followed it left you'd reach a back-lot where people who had a second car could park. My brothers alternated who got the spot outside of our apartments.
"The school told us that your art teacher is starting an after school art-enrichment program. Why don't you check it out?" Chris asked as we wound our way through the maze of cars toward his used Neon.
"Because I want to come home after school."
"It'd be one day a week. And you'd get to paint and draw and stuff you like."
"I don't do artwork anymore."
"I don't do artwork anymore," I repeated.
My mother had thought that I had potential. She used to enter me in contests, but I never won anything, no matter how long or hard she worked with me. There was always something in my work that was off to everyone else except me. I went with what I felt, despite the fact that it made my work somewhat unpleasant to view. For instance: I was supposed to do a landscape. So I painted a field of flowers, all red; then made the sky a deep orange. It had felt right.
You failed her, Michael.
"You could keep painting, if you wanted to," Chris snapped me out of my thoughts.
Chris rolled his eyes and unlocked the driver's side door, then pressed the button on the inside handle to unlock mine. I slid in the passenger side and thought about artwork: I missed it. It had been a long, long time since I had done anything remotely art-related. Creating didn't have the same feeling without my Mom.My mother and I painted the living room; I got the light just right. And then…
The white chair was stained with yellow. Until…
These will burn nicely, don't you think Michael?Please don't…
My work was gone, taken by my father, and without my Mom…
We used to work every Saturday morning before and even during her illness. I tried not to think about life before healing, but I hadn't forgotten what making pictures had felt like. Everything around me would just disappear when I worked. It was me, the paper, my hands, my mother, and what we were creating.
"…door," Chris ordered.
"Shut your door! We're not going anywhere with it wide open."
I stared out of the car in mild surprise. A slight breeze brushed my face, and for a second I wondered what it would feel like to leap from the vehicle at high speed.
Blood would come out. Like the blood on the white chair.
I shivered, wrestled my book bag to the floor, reached for the handle, slammed the door shut, and shook my head to clear the memories.
"Buckle your belt," my brother ordered as he backed the car out.
"I never buckle it."
"You ride with me, you wear it."
I broke down and slid the belt over my shoulder and across my thin lap. Chris pulled up to the driveway and waited for a break in traffic. "So this art thing," he started, not letting go of his new attempt to get me a life. "Why don't you try it?"
"I don't want to."
"How come? You could meet some nice people."
"I don't want to meet any people."
"Because I don't."
Chris glanced at me, then spotted a break in the cars and pulled onto the main road. We drove several blocks in silence, until I got nervous and reached for the radio button.
My brother's hand came out of nowhere to stop me; the second I spotted it, I jerked back against my seat. "Don't!" I nearly shouted.
Startled, Chris turned his eyes from the road to look at me and nearly sent us over the white line. He turned the steering wheel, hard, then straightened the car out. I was glad he'd made me wear my seatbelt.
"What's wrong?" he shot.
"Please don't touch me."
"I just wanted to talk to you."
"Don't touch me."
"I just didn't want you to turn on the radio. I wasn't going to hurt you."
"Don't touch me."
Chris took a deep breath and placed his hand firmly back on the steering wheel. "Steve found another doctor that we can actually afford, and—"
"I won't talk, like I did at the other ones."
"We're trying to help."
I shuddered violently.This is help, Michael…
"I don't want help. Just leave me alone."
"You need to talk to someone."
I began to panic. The pain in my stomach was back, almost as strong as it was in the night. "Please, no. I'm not crazy."
"I didn't say you were."
"Then why are you making me go?"
"Because you need to talk to someone."
"I don't want to talk about Philadelphia! I want to put it behind me. If you make me tell these people about Dad and Mom, you're just dragging the pain out."
"It's not like that, and you know it."
I leaned my head on the window and closed my eyes, not answering. I couldn't bring myself to tell anyone, even the police, about my father. I knew that Chris and Steve were never going to get over that; because I hadn't had him jailed, he had been able to find me—
And finish helping.
—but they didn't understand that if I told them everything that they would turn on me; and even if we weren't that close, I couldn't stand that happening again. I had hoped that if I stayed quiet long enough they'd leave me alone. But they were so damn determined to get me to talk, without listening to me when I told them I couldn't.
My school came into sight, and I gathered up my things, eager to escape.
"Your appointment's for Thursday night."
"I'm busy Thursday."
"You don't know them."
"You're lying to me."Are you lying to me, Michael? No, Daddy…
You need more help than I thought.
"I don't want to go. Can't you leave me alone?"
"Mike, we want to help you…"
As my brother pulled the car over, I unbuckled my seatbelt and nearly leapt out the door onto the pavement, then quickly disappeared into the crowd of students heading into the school.
"Mike, wait a second!" my brother's voice faded behind me.
I left my door open, I thought. So what?
I ducked in the front door to the front hall, lined on either side by lockers. No one looked at me. Kids from my classes walked by me without a word. Someone bumped into me and sent me stumbling, then continued on like I hadn't been there.
Sanctuary, I tried to convince myself.
Hey, did you see…
That boy, that's Mike Cullen…
You know his father used to…
Cullen, you and your Dad havin' fun…
Hey, look at that freak…
—we just want to help you.
I glanced down the hall; a group of girls were looking at me and smiling. Not nice smiles; mocking smiles.
Sanctuary, I thought desperately.
As usual at lunch, I sat in the corner with The Catcher in The Rye resting on my lap and tried not to spill chocolate milk all over my jeans and white tee-shirt. I had read Catcher more times than I could count, but it was my favorite book. I liked Holden Caulfield, how isolated he was, how deep down all of his emotions were just from being lonely. I wanted to be like him; tough and sure, independent and smart. I kind of wished I had friends to sit and talk with at lunch, instead of always being in a corner by myself trying to drown out the noise of lunch and laughter, of lips slurping up soup and smacking down sandwiches. Holden wouldn't care. Holden would look around the cafeteria and put himself above these people. At least he could pretend to be happy.
Through the din, I heard my name from the table beside me.
"That's the kid I was talking about," a girl 'whispered.'
"The skinny one with the book?"
"Yeah. You know what his father did?"
"I heard he..." they lowered their voices. I looked up at the group of girls gossiping about me, and they flashed back big, bright, bitchy smiles. I looked away, taking a deep breath and suddenly wishing I had a friendly face to go to.
And then, out of nowhere, someone plopped down on the bench beside me.
"You're Cullen, aren't you?" the stranger asked. No formalities, no polite conversation. I looked up and scanned my visitor; baggy jeans, tight white t-shirt, black skull cap, but the strangest of all: a pleasant face.
"Yeah," I said hesitantly.
"I'm Nick." He didn't offer me his hand or anything, but slammed his black book bag down on the table in front of me. I glanced from him to it; he had written weird words in whiteout all over the canvas. I turned back to him to see him staring straight at me. He had really intense eyes, aqua blue ones that focused right on your pupils. I looked away from him, feeling like my own pale eyes were burning under such a harsh stare. "You look like a guy who could use something to do," he went on.
True, I could have. I looked up at him again without meeting his gaze.
He leaned forward, closer than I'd have liked him to. "I've got the best stuff I could introduce you to. Stuff that can take you anywhere, man."
Like to the hospital. Or a grave. Oh boy.
"Not interested," I said simply.
It was his turn to look me over. I knew it wasn't a pretty sight: my clothes were too big, my hair too long, my skin and eyes too pale. But Nick saw deeper. He leaned even closer. "You strike me as a guy with something to hide. Or to forget."
My head involuntarily snapped up at his statement.
He smiled at my reaction. "I'm usually right. Well this stuff," he pulled out a bag of white, granulated powder from one of his many pockets, "will make you forget you're alive, if you want. It's awesome stuff man."
I stared at the bag, slightly tempted. I wanted to forget these past few years. I'd do anything to forget these past few years. Anything. But drugs? My God, Steve would have an aneurysm. And Chris would rather have me dead than doing something that stupid. And me...did I want to take the risk?
Nick watched my every move closely. "No rush, man. You want to think it over, fine. This stuff costs about eight dollars a hit. But that's all it takes. I'm telling you, Cullen. It's great stuff."
"My name's Mike," I said calmly.
"Right. Mike. Think this over," he handed me a slip of paper with his name and a phone number on it. "I'm telling you, it's a great escape. I can even provide you with a place to take it. Introduce you to the regulars. You won't regret it, man."
No memories, I thought. No regrets.
Not a bad deal.